The Face in The Crowd

Terrible things happened to Imette St. Guillen between the time she left her friends in lower Manhattan and when she was found dead, wrapped in a garish floral bedspread, amid trash and weeds miles away in Brooklyn. She'd been tied up, raped and strangled. A sock had been jammed in her mouth and her hair had been hacked off. And those were just the external signs. The real horror show had to have been what was going on in the 24-year-old graduate student's head.

But there was one detail that haunted women talking about the murder, as they did in the city over and over again. It was what the assailant did to Imette's face. He covered it with horizontal strips of packing tape. The pretty woman with the dark eyes in all the newspaper photographs was effectively obliterated. The man who killed her also defaced her, in the most glaring sense of that term.

It's commonplace for rapists to cover a victim's face, perhaps with a pillowcase or a piece of clothing. Sometimes it's so she can't identify him; sometimes it's so she becomes a nothing, a body absent that part that is most associated with individuality and humanity. But it's not just criminals inclined to turn women into nonentities. In the same edition that carried news of Imette's murder, The New York Times ran a story about two fashion designers in Paris who put masks on the models in their shows so that the women were completely faceless. "I didn't want any distraction from the line," one said.

The greatest challenge of this century is going to be to avoid becoming a faceless society, with all that suggests and portends. The change in the way modern human beings know one another, and the world, has happened so incrementally and yet so quickly that it's almost impossible to assess its ultimate psychological cost. Only four decades ago, half a lifetime, daily life was different in so many conventions of communication. A phone was anchored to the wall, an instant message was a hand-delivered greeting card and a blind date took place in a restaurant.

Today many people are having online relationships with acquaintances or friends they've never really met--and who may be nothing at all like the selves they describe. The poor child who once could count on the bullying to stop once the school bell had rung now discovers it can go on endlessly through the miracle of the chat room, and worse than before, since it's much easier to wound without the sight of wounded eyes. Looking someone straight in the eye is an age-old incentive to do the right thing, but there's precious little of it in the computer age.

The power of the human face is why the notion of a face transplant, recently performed in France, makes the public queasy. Personality may be the wine, but the face is the label others learn to recognize. Even animals assess one another's intentions by the cast of the eye, the curl of the lip. A face-to-face meeting often means the difference between understanding and estrangement. In her memoir, "Autobiography of a Face," the writer Lucy Grealy described life after childhood cancer left her with much of her lower jaw gone or distorted and the night on which she felt happiest and most free: Halloween, when she could wear a mask. This is the age of the mask: the homogenized unreadable expression courtesy of the plastic surgeon, the anonymous fantasy love affair via the Internet.

So many of the old conventions have gone the way of the TV antenna-- privacy, downtime, the line between work life and home life that was once delineated by the ride on the train or the closing of the apartment door. The message that begins "I can't come to the phone right now" is a lie. Everyone can come to the phone all the time. Soon, business people forced into studying spreadsheets, reading paperback best sellers and perhaps even making desultory conversation with the person in the next seat will be able to use their cell phones in the air. The BlackBerry device alone makes it seem as though we're living in a '50s futuristic film. The paradox is that all this nominal communication has led to enormous isolation, with people hunched over their handhelds or staring into the screen of the computer. There is the illusion of keeping in touch, but always at arm's length.

Sometimes it seems that what people want most is the one thing they no longer have: human contact. The person on the other end of the phone who believes the bill is actually mistaken, and who is apologetic. The friend who comes over for a cup of tea instead of sending a text message. Young women like Imette St. Guillen who go out on a Saturday night in cities like New York--they carefully choose the earrings, the jeans, the lipstick. Sometimes they're just blowing off steam, getting together with girlfriends. But often they're looking for something different, something more, someone who will see them across a field of restaurant tables, really see them. In a society that has too often become isolating and inhuman, they're looking for that one face in the crowd. Maybe everyone is.